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The darkest minds, p.7
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       The Darkest Minds, p.7

         Part #1 of Darkest Minds series by Alexandra Bracken
 

  Cate ran a hand over her lips. “I’m not interested in those kinds of operations,” she said. “I’d much rather be focused on the real issue, which is helping you kids. You can destroy a factory, and they’ll just build another. But once you destroy a life, that’s it. You never get that person back.”

  “Do people have any idea?” I squeezed out. “Do the people know that they’re not reforming us at all?”

  “I’m not sure,” Cate said. “Some will always live in denial about the camps, and they’ll believe what they want to believe about them. I think most people know there’s something off, but they’re in too deep with their own problems to call into question how the government is handling things at the camps. I think they want to trust that you’re all being treated well. Honestly, there are…there are so few of you left now.”

  I sat straight up again. “What?”

  This time, Cate couldn’t look at me. “I didn’t want to have to be the one to tell you this, but things are much worse now than they were before. The last estimate the League put together said that two percent of the country’s population of ten- to seventeen-year-olds were in reform camps.”

  “What about the rest?” I said, but I already knew the answer. “The ninety-eight percent?”

  “Most of them fell victim to IAAN.”

  “They died,” I corrected. “All the kids? Everywhere?”

  “No, not everywhere. There have been a few cases of it reported in other countries, but here in America…” Cate took a deep breath. “I don’t know how much to tell you now, because I don’t want to overwhelm you, but it seems like the onset of IAAN or Psi powers is linked to puberty—”

  “How many?” They really hadn’t learned anything new in all the years I was trapped in Thurmond? “How many of us are left?”

  “According to the government, there are approximately a quarter of a million children under the age of eighteen, but our estimate is closer to a tenth of that.”

  I was going to be sick. I unbuckled my seat belt and leaned forward, putting my head between my legs. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Cate’s hand come down, as if she was going to rest it on my back, but I twisted away again. For a long time, the only sound between us was the tires turning against the old road.

  I kept my face down and eyes shut long enough for Cate to worry. “Are you still feeling queasy? We had to give you a high enough dosage of penicillin to induce seizurelike symptoms. Trust me, if we could have done it any other way we would have, but we needed something serious enough for the PSFs to actually bring you back to the Infirmary.”

  Martin snored behind us until eventually even that faded into the sound of the tires rolling down the old road. My stomach twisted at the thought of asking exactly how many miles we were from Thurmond, how far away the past really was.

  “I know,” I said after a while. “Thank you—I mean it.”

  Cate reached over, and before I could think to stop her, her hand ran a smooth path from my shoulder down my arm. I felt something warm tickle at the back of my mind, and recognized its warning trill. The first white-hot flash from her mind came and went so fast, I saw the scene like a photo negative. A young girl with white-blond hair in a high chair, her mouth frozen in a toothless grin. The next image stayed, lingered long enough for me to recognize I was seeing fire. Fire—everywhere, climbing the walls of the room, burning with all the intensity of the sun. This…memory? It trembled, shuddered hard enough that I had to clench my teeth to keep from getting nauseated. Inside Cate’s memory, a silver door with 456B stamped over it in black lettering slid into view. A hand flashed out, reaching for the handle—Cate’s pale, slender fingers, outstretched—only to pull away at its molten hot touch. A hand lashed out against the wood, then a foot. The image wavered, curling at the edges as the door disappeared behind the dark smoke that spewed through its cracks and joints.

  The same dark door shut, and I jolted back, pulling my arm out from under hers.

  What the hell? I thought, my heart racing in my ears. I squeezed my eyes shut.

  “Still?” Cate said. “Oh, Ruby, I’m so sorry. When we switch cars, I’ll be sure to ask for something to help ease your stomach.”

  She, like all the others, was oblivious.

  “You know…” Cate said after a while. She kept her eyes on the dark road, to where it met the brightening sky. “It was brave of you to take the pills and come with me. I knew there was more to you than the quiet girl I met in the Infirmary.”

  I’m not brave. If I had been, I would have owned up to what I really was, no matter how terrible. I would have worked, eaten, and slept alongside the other Oranges, or at least stepped out of the shadow of the Yellows and Reds.

  Those kids had been so proud of their powers. They made a point of harassing the camp controllers at every turn, hurting the PSFs, setting their cabins and the Washrooms on fire, trying to talk their way out of the gate or driving the adults insane by putting images of murdered families or cheating wives in their heads.

  It was impossible to miss them, to not step aside and turn away when they passed. I had let myself sit like a coward in the dull, endless stream of gray and green, never drawing attention, never once letting myself believe that I could or should escape. I think that all they wanted was to find a way out, and to do it themselves. They had burned so bright, and fought so hard to get free.

  But none of them had made it to sixteen.

  There are a thousand ways to tell if someone is lying to you. You don’t need to be able to glimpse into their mind to catch all of the little signs of insecurity and discomfort. More often than not, all you have to do is look at them. If they glance to the left while they’re talking to you, if they add too many details to a story, if they answer a question with another question. My dad, a cop, taught me and twenty-four other kids about it in second grade, when he gave his presentation on Stranger Danger.

  But Cate had no tells. She told me things about the world that didn’t seem possible, not until we were able to pick up a radio station and a solemn voice bled through the speakers to confirm it all.

  “Yes!” she cried, slapping her palm against the wheel. “Finally!”

  “The president has reportedly refused an invitation from Britain’s prime minister to discuss possible relief measures for the world economic crisis and how to pump life back into the sagging global stock markets. When asked to explain his decision, the president cited the United Kingdom’s role in the UN’s economic sanctions against the United States.”

  Cate fiddled with the tuning again. The newscaster’s voice faded in and out. At the first burst of static, I jumped.

  “…forty-five women were arrested in Austin, Texas, yesterday for attempting to evade the birth registry. The women will be detained in a corrections facility until their children are born, after which the infants will be removed for the safety of their mothers and the state of Texas. The attorney general had this to say…”

  Another voice came through, this one deep and raspy. “In accordance with New Order 15, President Gray issued an arrest warrant for all persons involved with this dangerous activity.…”

  “Gray?” I said, glancing over to Cate. “He’s still the president?”

  He had only just been elected when the first cases of IAAN appeared, and I couldn’t really remember anything about him, other than that he had dark eyes and dark hair. And even that I only knew because the camp controllers had strung up pictures of his son, Clancy, all over camp as proof to us that we, too, could be reformed. I had a sudden, sharp memory of the last time I had been in the Infirmary, and the way his picture had seemed to watch me.

  She shook her head, visibly disgusted. “He granted himself a term extension until the Psi situation is, and I quote, resolved so as to make sure the United States is safe from telekinetic acts of terror and violence. He even suspended Congress.”

  “How did he manage that?” I asked.

  “With his so-called wartime powers,” Ca
te said. “Maybe a year or two after you were taken, some Psi kids nearly succeeded in blowing up the Capitol.”

  “Nearly? What does that mean?”

  Cate glanced over again, studying my face. “It means that they only succeeded in blowing up the Senate portion of it. President Gray’s control of the government was only supposed to last until new congressional elections could be held, but then the riots started when the PSF started pulling kids from schools without their parents’ permission. And then, of course, the economy tanked and the country defaulted on its debt. You’d be surprised how little voice you have when you lose everything.”

  “And everyone just let him?” The thought turned my stomach.

  “No, no one just let him. It’s chaos out here right now, Ruby. Gray keeps trying to tighten his control, and every day more and more people are rioting or breaking whatever laws we have left just to get food on the table.”

  “My dad was killed in a riot.”

  Cate turned around to face the backseat so quickly the car actually swerved into the other lane. I had known Martin was awake for at least ten minutes; his breathing had become much lighter, and he had stopped doing his weird little lip licking and grunts. I just hadn’t wanted to talk to him, or to interrupt Cate.

  “The people in our neighborhood robbed his store for food, and he couldn’t even defend himself.”

  “How are you feeling?” Sugar coated Cate’s words, almost as sweet as the vanilla air freshener twirling around in front of us.

  “Okay, I guess.” He sat up, trying to pat down his floppy brown hair into something presentable. Martin was round all over; his cheeks drooped and his uniform shirt might have been a size too small, but he hadn’t started growing like the other kids in his cabin. I had maybe an inch or two on him, and I was short, with an average build. He couldn’t have been more than a year younger than I was.

  “I’m glad,” Cate said. “There’s a water bottle back there for you if you need it. We’ll be stopping in about an hour to switch cars again.”

  “Where are we going?”

  “We’re meeting with a friend in Marlinton, West Virginia. He’ll have a change of clothes and identification papers for both of you. We’re almost there now.”

  I thought for sure Martin had dropped right back off into sleep until he asked, “Where are we going after that?”

  The radio flashed to life, snatching up bits and pieces of Led Zeppelin, before losing it again to static and silence.

  I could feel Martin’s eyes burning holes into the back of my neck. I tried not to turn around to stare right back, but it was the closest I had been to a boy my age since we had been sorted. After years of living on opposite sides of the main trail in Thurmond, it was unnerving to suddenly be presented with all his little details. The freckles I hadn’t noticed on his face, for instance, or the way his eyebrows seemed to merge into one.

  What was I supposed to say to him? I’m so glad I found you? We’re the last of us? One was the truth, and one couldn’t be further from it.

  “We’re going to regroup with the League at their southern headquarters. After we get there, you can decide if you want to stay,” she said. “I know you’ve been through a lot, so you don’t have to make any choices now. Just know that you’ll be safe if you stay with me.”

  The feeling of freedom rose in me so fast that I had to chase it down to squash it along with my swelling heart. It was still too dangerous. There was a chance that the PSFs could catch up to us, that I’d be back in camp or dead before we even got to Virginia.

  Martin watched me, his dark eyes narrowed. I watched as his pupils seemed to shrink, and I felt a tickle in the back of my mind. The same one I always felt when my abilities wanted to be let out and used.

  What the hell? My fingers dug into the armrests, but I didn’t turn back around to see if he was still at it. I glanced up into the rearview mirror only once, watching as he leaned back against the seat and crossed his arms over his chest with a huff. A sore at the corner of his mouth looked angry and red, like he had been scratching at the scab.

  “I want to go where I can do what I couldn’t do at Thurmond,” Martin said, finally.

  I didn’t want to know what he meant by that.

  “I’m a lot more powerful than you think,” he continued. “You won’t need anyone else after you see what I can do.”

  Cate smiled. “That’s what I’m counting on. I knew you’d understand.”

  “What about you, Ruby?” she asked, turning to me. “Are you willing to make a difference?”

  If I said I no, would they let me go? If I asked to go to my parents’ house in Salem, would they take me there—no questions asked? To Virginia Beach, if I wanted to see my grandmother? Out of the country, if that’s what I really wanted?

  They were both looking at me, wearing mirrored looks of urgency and excitement. I wish I could have felt it. I wish I could have shared in the security they were feeling about their choice, but I wasn’t absolutely certain of what I wanted. I only knew what I didn’t want.

  “Take me anywhere,” I said. “Anywhere but home.”

  Martin picked at the sore with grubby nails until blood appeared and he licked it off his lips and the tip of his fingers. Watching me, like he expected me to ask for a taste.

  I turned back to Cate, a question dying on my lips. Because for a second, just one, all I could think about was the sight of fire and smoke rising from the sharp lines of her shoulders, and the door she couldn’t open.

  SEVEN

  WE REACHED MARLINTON’S CITY LIMITS at seven o’clock in the morning, just as the sun decided to reappear from behind the thick layer of clouds. It colored the nearby trees a faint violet, and glinted off the wall of mist that had gathered over the asphalt. By then, we had driven past several highway exits that were barricaded with junk, rails, or deserted cars—done up either by the National Guard to contain hostile towns and cities, or by the residents themselves, to keep unwanted looters and visitors out of already hard-hit areas. The road itself, however, had been silent for hours on end, which meant that we were due for some sort of human interaction sooner or later.

  It came sooner, in the form of a red semitruck. I scooted down in my seat as it whipped past us. It was headed clear in the opposite direction, but I had a perfect view of the gold swan painted on its side.

  “They’re everywhere,” Cate said, following my line of sight. “That was probably a shipment to Thurmond.”

  It was the first true sign of life we’d seen in all of our driving—most likely because we were cruising down Dead Man’s Highway in the middle of Butt-Freaking Nowhere—but that single truck was enough to scare Cate.

  “Get in the backseat,” she said, “and stay down.”

  I did as I was told. Unbuckling my seat belt, I twisted between the front seats and threaded my legs through them.

  Martin watched me with glassy eyes. At one point, I felt his hand slip against my arm, like he was trying to help me. I recoiled, slipping down in the space between the backseat and the front. My back was against the door and my knees were against my chest, but we were still too close. When he grinned, it was enough to make my skin crawl.

  There were boys at Thurmond. Plenty of them, in fact. But any activity that involved the commingling of the sexes—whether that was eating together, sharing cabins, or even passing one another on the way to the Washrooms—was strictly forbidden. The PSFs and camp controllers enforced the rule with the same level of severity they did with the kids who—however intentionally or unintentionally—used their abilities. Which, of course, only drove everyone’s already hormone-drunk brains crazier, and turned some of my cabinmates into an elite breed of covert stalkers.

  Maybe I didn’t remember the “right” way to interact with someone of the opposite gender, but I’m pretty sure Martin didn’t, either.

  “Fun, huh?” he said. I thought he was kidding, until I saw the too-eager look in his eyes. The itching came again, the tin
gling sensation of yet another attempt to peer inside my head, dread trailing down the length of my spine like a freezing fingertip. I pressed up against the door and kept my eyes on Cate, but it wasn’t far enough.

  We are nothing alike, I realized. We had been brought to the same place, lived in the same kind of terror, but he…he was so…

  I needed to change the subject and distract him from whatever it was he was trying to do. The AC was on, but you never would have known by the heat he was giving off.

  “Do you think Thurmond has noticed we’re gone?” I asked, breaking the silence.

  Cate switched off her headlights. “I would think so. The PSFs don’t have the manpower to launch a full hunt for us, but I’m positive they’ve put two and two together about what you are.”

  “What do you mean?” I asked. “That we’re Orange? I thought you said they already knew. That was why we had to leave so quickly.”

  “They were on the verge of finding out,” Cate explained. “They were testing the Orange and Red frequencies in that Calm Control. I don’t think any of them expected it to work that quickly—that’s why we had to get you out, and fast.”

  “Frequencies,” Martin repeated. “You mean they added something to it?”

  “That’s exactly right.” Cate smiled at him in the rearview mirror. “The League got wind of their new method of trying to weed out kids who had been labeled incorrectly when they were brought into camp. You know that adults can’t hear the Calm Control, I’m sure.”

  We both nodded.

  “The scientists there have been working on frequencies that only certain kinds of Psi youth can pick up and process. There are some wavelengths you all can hear, and others that only Greens, or Blues, or—in this instance—Oranges can detect.”

  It made sense, but it didn’t make it any less horrifying.

  “You know, I’ve been wondering,” Cate began. “How did you two do it? You especially, Ruby. You went into that camp so young. How did you get around their sorting?”

  “I…just did,” I said. “I told the man who was supposed to run my tests that I was Green. He listened.”

 
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